Monday, 20 December 2010

Thieves Like Us (1974) - Robert Altman

Robert Altman cut his teeth in television, and it shows. All through his career he was able to hop from genre to genre without any problems. He made heaps of films with a stack of differing subjects, all with what appears to be relative ease. Despite this you're never left in any doubt that you are watching an Altman film, from those long takes of his, that famous overlapping dialogue and of course the relaxed performances he extracts from his actors. However not everything he made will be everyone's cup of tea. I've never met anyone who adores everything by the great man. We can all agree on what his classics were (that's the easy part), but it's those odd little films that slipped through the cracks at the time that usually divide opinions so much.

This film is that old breaking out of prison and going on the run in the deep south chestnut. You know the schtick, depression era America, robbing banks, holing up with those strange characters they have down there, that are all dungarees and chewing tobacco, robbing more banks, falling in love, falling out with your thieving monkey friends and all the while trying to stay one step ahead of the bizzies.

Anyway this was one of those (many) Altman films that I hadn't seen before. Personally (and if this blog is anything, it's personal), I found this to be a better take on the genre than Bonnie and Clyde. But then I'm not a big fan of Bonnie and Clyde, I don't know why, since it is hailed as a masterpiece and all that. I can accept that it was one of those films that moved things forward a half step, but it still leaves me cold. I just don't buy Beatty and Dunaway, I think that's the biggest problem for me. Their teeth are just too white, their hair just a little too styled. Thieves Like Us is the opposite of Penn's film, it's all sweat patches and bad breath, you wouldn't want to hang out with the people in this film, or laugh uncomfortably at their piss poor jokes. The film focuses more on the characters and less on the action, for example there are several hold ups during the film, but we only get to see the last of them. So it's nothing like Roger Corman's old rule of a bit of violence or nudity every twenty minutes, we only get to see things that affect the people we are watching. What an old fashioned idea. The opening shot is a great bit of Altman misdirection, we follow a car driving through a landscape, the camera pans with the car but keeps going even after the car has left the frame, only to pick up a boat with what turns out to be our two escapees. Of course he doesn't show the prison break, it's wonderful and really sets the tone for the film.

Shelley Duvall and Keith Carradine both worked with Altman throughout the 70's, and are absolutely perfect in this as the main focus of the story. I don't really know what else to write about this, should I mention that New Order half inched the title for their best ever b-side? No? Okay I'll just say then that it's a great little film, not quite McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Nashville, but then very few films are. However it is a good American film from the early 70's, so you can guess how it ends.

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